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Tight Ends: A Recap of 2016 (Standard Leagues)

Heath reflects on the state of the tight end position.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings
Kyle Rudolph deserves some love.
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The tight end position had major question marks heading into the 2016 NFL season. Would Coby Fleener approximate Benjamin Watson’s production in New Orleans? Could the New England offense sustain Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett? How healthy would Tyler Eifert, Ladarius Green, and Jimmy Graham actually be?

The short answers to the above questions:

Coby Fleener finished as the TE12 with 631 yards and three touchdowns. He was such a boom-or-bust player that he was a massive liability in head-to-head leagues, though. Fleener only had four weeks above six fantasy points. Four! What a massive headache Fleener was.

The New England offense only had Rob Gronkowski for eight games. Gronkowski (540 yards, 3 TDs) still finished as the TE21 in only half of a season. Martellus Bennett never really shined in Gronk’s absence, but still finished as the TE7 (701 yards, 7 TDs). That Bennett never really felt like a consistent option despite the top 10 finish is an indictment of the tight end position in 2016 as a whole.

Like Gronkowski, Tyler Eifert only managed eight games. Eifert finished as the TE23 (394 yards, 5 TDs). Ladarius Green appeared in only six games and finished as the TE40 (304 yards, 1 TD). I was bearish on these two players prior to the season, and playing it safe with injuries was a good call in this case.

Jimmy Graham was an exception to injury skepticism, however, as he played in 16 games and finished with 923 yards and six touchdowns, good for a TE4 finish. Only Travis Kelce, Greg Olsen, and Kyle Rudolph bested Graham’s production at the position. Graham’s return from a torn patella tendon was impressive, especially considering that multiple medical experts asserted that Graham would be unable to return—or if he did return he would do so as a shell of his former self. Joke is on those guys—and me, for believing them.

Some top finishers at the tight end position benefited from injuries and other circumstances...

Travis Kelce had 117 targets, fourth-most among tight ends and a new career high. He also set high-water marks in receptions (85), yardage (1,125), and yards-per-catch (13.2). The loss of Jamaal Charles for the season and Jeremy Maclin for a time were beneficial, as well as the relative ineptitude of the rest of the Kansas City receiving corps (with the obvious exception of Tyreek Hill). I probably consider Kelce my top option heading into 2017, as Gronkowski’s injury history has become too concerning to ignore. My major concern is that Maclin played in a career low 12 games and set new lows in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns. His return to health is a negative for Kelce’s outlook. Any further emergence by Tyreek Hill will hurt as well. The Chiefs have shown us repeatedly that they find reasons not to feature Kelce...2016 could well be an aberration due to the aforementioned injuries.

Greg Olsen had a whopping 129 targets, second only to Rudolph’s 132. Alas, Olsen only converted a pair of his 18 red zone targets for scores, which capped his ceiling. He still managed to finish as the second-best option in standard leagues, which is another indictment of the tight end landscape. In 2014, Olsen managed 136.80 points and finished as the TE4. In 2015 it was 150.40 points and another TE4 finish. In 2016 it was 127.30 points and a TE2 finish—and Kelce only had 138 points as the top finisher this season. In fact, Kelce’s 138 points would have ranked 4th in 2014 and 7th in 2015. The losses of Gronkowski, Reed, Eifert, and Julius Thomas took their collective toll on us this season.

Kyle Rudolph benefited from the Vikings aggressive trade for Sam Bradford, as Bradford’s tendency to feature the tight end position paid big dividends. Rudolph was tops in the league among tight ends in red zone targets (30) and finished tied for second in touchdowns (7). He also garnered 132 targets, which obliterated his previous career high of 93. In short, he received far more opportunity than ever before, and opportunity is still the king in the fake game. Perhaps the loss of Adrian Peterson, the poor offensive line, and the lack of any production at all by Laquon Treadwell all conspired to bring this reality about. In any event, Rudolph was one of the major misses in my preseason rankings, as I had him ranked as the TE27. If I had known he would be second in the entire NFL in red zone targets behind only Jordy Nelson...

Cameron Brate (TE6) and Zach Ertz (TE8) each benefited from a lack of viable receiving options on their respective teams. Brate amassed 19 red zone looks and tied for the league-lead in touchdowns (8) among tight ends. Ertz converted four of his 16 red zone looks and had another strong finish in the twilight of the season, capped off by a Week 17 butchering of the Dallas Cowboys’ unmotivated defense (Dallas had already clinched as much as they could). Ertz set a new career high for receptions (78) despite playing in only 14 games. Perhaps the lack of receiving options in Philadelphia coupled with a rookie quarterback are to blame. Is blame the right word?

The “Old Man” Antonio Gates hobbled his way to a TE10 finish on the back of seven scores and 548 yards. Placing second in the league among tight ends in red zone looks (24) helped. Gates should break the scoring record for tight ends next season, but we can safely expect the featured tight end in this offense to be Hunter Henry, who finished as the TE11 with 478 yards and tied Cameron Brate with eight scores. Henry was trusted with 17 red zone looks, good for ninth-best at the tight end position. He probably would have had more, too, had the Chargers not been record-chasing with Old Man Gates.

Anquan Boldin delayed Eric Ebron’s breakout season

Eric Ebron was one of my favorite draft day targets, but he suffered due to the re-emergence of the ageless Anquan Boldin, who finished tied for sixth in the NFL in red zone looks (24). As a result, there were 22 tight ends who had more red zone looks than Ebron (9) in 2016. Ebron also only appeared in 13 games. Despite those roadblocks he still finished as the TE15 on the strength of career highs in targets (86), receptions (61), and yards-per-catch (11.7). One could argue that only touchdowns were missing from what we might be calling a “breakout season.” I will be keeping an eye on this situation in 2017, as Ebron is still wed to a gunslinging quarterback and Boldin cannot maintain his production forever...right? If Ebron sees more red zone looks in 2017 he should be a solid value in any draft format.

Dennis Pitta is the new Jason Witten

Dennis Pitta actually stayed healthy and finished with 121 targets, good for third-most among tight ends. He also failed to score much and finished as the TE16. That is not great output based on his opportunities, but for a guy that was an afterthought heading into the season it was significant. In fairness to Pitta, he scored twice on only 12 red zone targets, while Witten scored twice on 20 red zone targets. These two finished less than one point apart in standard league scoring.

I was “on” Maxx Williams as a sneaky play heading into 2016, but perhaps that reality will manifest in 2017 if Williams can recover from his knee injury. I think it is possible that both Pitta and veteran Benjamin Watson do not make the Ravens roster in 2017, which would make Williams a sneaky play. Unless Pitta takes a pay cut...

A changing of the guard in Indianapolis?

Jack Doyle (TE13) bested Dwayne Allen (TE19) in Indianapolis, although each benefited from the other’s absence at times and from injuries to Donte Moncrief. As it stands now, Doyle could be a sneaky pick in 2017 if no other receiving options appear in Indy. This is a pretty narrow passing game after T.Y. Hilton and Moncrief. If either were to get hurt, Doyle would be a viable streamer.

Other items of significance...

Vernon Davis had a mini-resurgence in Washington, and not just due to the opportunity created by Jordan Reed’s injuries. The issue in Washington, however, is the plethora of viable receiving options. Jamison Crowder was super-dependable for a long stretch of time, but then that production shifted to DeSean Jackson. Pierre Garcon also had a very good season. This team should also get Josh Doctson back from injury in 2017, which will further muddy the proverbial waters. Davis is a name to keep in mind since he proved he can still produce, but unless major injuries or turnover open up opportunities his output should be poor in 2017.

Vance McDonald appeared to be becoming Colin Kaepernick’s preferred target in San Francisco, but there really was no one else to throw to, so there’s that. We also do not know what the situation in San Francisco will be in 2017. It seems like McDonald has been a trendy name for forever, but I will probably play it safe with his ranking in 2017.

Julius Thomas’ injury was a major blow to the viability of the tight end position in general, but the ineptitude of Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville offense were major roadblocks anyway. Hopefully a new coach can stimulate a formerly-exciting offense. If Allen Hurns can return to health, that will be a dangerous trio of wideouts despite the down year from Allen Robinson (who should rebound). Thomas seems like the odd man out due to never being on the field...he has never played a full season and just can’t stay healthy enough to produce.

Jared Cook was another big miss in my preseason rankings, as I had him 13th overall and he finished as the TE35. He only appeared in 10 games and managed a single score. He did more for the real life Green Bay offense than he did for our fake teams. The return to form by Jordy Nelson and the flashes of brilliance from Davante Adams were detriments to his opportunities. I still believe Aaron Rodgers can support a viable starting tight end, but at this point I am not holding my breath.

I put too much faith in Gary Barnidge (my preseason TE7) to continue to hog the opportunities in Cleveland. Terrelle Pryor had different ideas, as Barnidge had 42 fewer targets than he did in 2015, despite playing a full 16 games in both seasons. Consequently, Barnidge finished way down the charts as the TE19. His outlook remains grim for 2017 unless major changes occur in Cleveland, but I cannot imagine the Browns will be depending on a one-hit-wonder tight end who turns 32 years old next September. Of course, they are the Browns...

And now, to reflect on one’s self...

Yours truly completed his second full season of positional rankings over at FantasyPros and finished 10th in tight end accuracy out of 132 experts. Given that tight ends were my primary focus in 2016 and that 10th was my best score out of all positions, I take that as a great amount of validation. I look forward to the next season of fantasy football at FakeTeams, and hope to bring a more refined process to the study of tight ends in 2017.

I also finished 8th out of 62 daily fantasy experts in the NFL Daily Fantasy Accuracy Cup (DFAC) hosted by FantasyPros...one year after finishing 74th out of 76 experts. So either I am a quick study or I caught lightning in a bottle. We shall see...

Week 17 of the NFL season was my most profitable day of DFS, ever, as I nearly took down the $1 Squib and finished 4th out of 47,058 entries. A cool $700 off of that one dollar...talk about return on investment! My best plays were Julian Edelman against the Dolphins (assist to Michael Floyd for the Tim Riggins block) and Zach Ertz against the unmotivated Cowboys, who were poor against tight ends anyway. I will forever rue not pairing Rodgers with Davante Adams, though. So it goes.

Feel free to share your victories and defeats from 2016 in the comments, and let’s get ready for baseball!